British Museum scandal demonstrates anti-trade bias

British Museum scandal demonstrates anti-trade bias

Even when an antiquities dealer proves to be the hero of the hour, the media and others try to blame the market instead of those responsible

Much of the past ten days has been taken up with the thefts scandal at the British Museum. A senior curator sacked, the director of the museum quitting early, and the deputy director stepping back from duties pending an investigation.

Covered in disgrace, senior executives made their position worse by attempting to divert blame to the man who had blown the whistle in the first place, even though he had spent several years trying to get them to take him seriously.

Why did they think they might get away with it? Perhaps because Dr Ittai Gradel, an academic and collector of antiquities, is also a dealer. And perhaps, too, because history shows us that the media are all too ready to believe the worst of the trade even when confronted by evidence to the contrary.

BM director Dr Hartwig Fischer was quoted as follows: “When allegations were brought to us in 2021, we took them incredibly seriously, and immediately set up an investigation.

“Concerns were only raised about a small number of items, and our investigation concluded that those items were all accounted for.

“We now have reason to believe that the individual who raised concerns had many more items in his possession, and it’s frustrating that that was not revealed to us as it would have aided our investigations.”

Dismissing these claims as “lies”, Dr Gradel accused the director of “shooting the messenger”: “They never even contacted me. I was waiting the whole time for them to ask me to give testimony. Why can’t they just own up to their responsibility?”

Excoriating censure by the Telegraph

Fortunately The Telegraph, which had secured the scoop on the story, had conducted a thorough investigation of the email trail between Dr Gradel and the BM, so it knew who was telling the truth. It went so far as to publish a leader article on August 25 censuring the BM management: “Although the British Museum ostensibly opened an investigation, it reached a swift conclusion that nothing untoward had happened. Now we know that was not the case… the whistleblower gave the British Museum the opportunity to stem the disappearances without publicity. For it to supposedly take no action was a dereliction of duty and has made it harder to argue against demands for the repatriation of important parts of the collection such as the Elgin Marbles.”

Most damningly, the Telegraph concluded: “Why are those accused of ignoring warnings still in post? If they refuse to resign then George Osborne, the UK’s former chief finance minister and now museum’s chairman, should dismiss them for tarnishing the reputation of a great institution.”

While Dr Fischer’s crisis management proved a disaster for him and the museum, as one of the two most senior government ministers in the land during the David Cameron premiership, Mr Osborne is a seasoned politician with a much more authoritative grasp on the playbook of public opinion and reacted accordingly to limit the damage. He revealed that some items had been recovered, calling it “a silver lining to a dark cloud”.

In a BBC interview, Mr Osborne also revealed what he thought had gone wrong in the failure to address Dr Gradel’s concerns promptly: “…was there some potential groupthink in the museum at the time, at the very top of the museum, that just couldn’t believe that an insider was stealing things, couldn’t believe that one of the members of staff were doing this? Yes, that’s very possible.”

IADAA and ADA adviser Ivan Macquisten was quoted in The Times, explaining the importance of the trade’s role in crime prevention, as the media turned its attention to the unwelcome challenges that the possible sale of so many stolen items might pose.

It became clear that many of the missing items had never been properly catalogued or photographed, meaning they will probably never be identified or restored to the British Museum’s collection. Nonetheless, the most strenuous efforts must be made to recover as much as possible.

Trade associations launch media campaign over crisis

Both IADAA and the ADA launched a media campaign on August 25 calling on the British Museum to publish a full list of the missing objects, together with photographs, prominently on its website as a matter of urgency so that the trade and others can help in their safe recovery. Mr Osborne has said that only the police can publish a list on the Interpol website and that the BM is working with the Art Loss Register, adding that simply publishing the list itself might not bring the best response. This was unconvincing. The Art Loss Register is unlikely to focus on less important items among those stolen, and regardless of what other measures the BM is taking, it should also publish the list prominently on its website to ensure the greatest public awareness in the quest for recovery. If that is too much to ask, the least it could do is to provide the correct information to dealers and auction houses for enhanced due diligence.

Despite it being a member of the antiquities trade who devoted four years to uncovering the scandal and reporting it, some commentators have used the scandal to attack the trade.

Foremost of these is anti-trade campaigner Morgan Belzic, doctor in archaeology at the French Archaeological Mission in Libya, who reportedly told classicist Daisy Dunn, also writing for The Telegraph“The London art market is one of the most involved in antiquities theft and looting… It can move objects very easily and quickly out of the country. It’s one of the least controlled markets in the world. There’s a lot of complacency, a lot of negligence and, of course, some dealers are directly involved with the illegal trade.”

Belzic stuck the knife in further with bogus statistics: “I’d estimate the legal art and antiquities market is only 20 per cent of the total trade,” he said. “It’s impossible to give an accurate number, so little research has been done in the field, but the illegal trade is certainly in the billions [of pounds].”

If it is impossible to give an accurate number, how can he estimate that the legal market is only 20 per cent of the total trade?

He is clearly also unaware of the recently published Cambridge University paper by Dr Neil Brodie and Assistant Professor Donna Yates, The illicit trade in antiquities is not the world’s third largest illicit trade: a critical evaluation of a factoid, or the 2020 RAND report, the latter of which demonstrates convincingly why any illicit trade in antiquities could not be worth billions of dollars – a logical point earlier noted by the ADA’s and IADAA’s own analysis.

Hypocritical approach of trade’s critics 

Belzic follows the pattern of many critics of the trade by demanding unquestionable documented provenance for their claims over artefacts, while considering himself free to make wild, inaccurate and damaging claims about the trade without offering any provenance to support what he has to say. He makes a very serious allegation, accusing London dealers of criminal activity. If he has proof of this, why does he not name them? His careless approach is irresponsible.

The additional problem with this is that it is such critics, spreading the bogus claims over an illicit trade worth billions of pounds, who themselves risk encouraging further looting by those who think they are going to make a fortune from such thefts when the reality is otherwise.

One of the more important aspects of this whole sorry saga is the spotlight it has thrown on the politicisation of the museum sector and how it is run. In a letter to The Times on August 25, the former curator of Salisbury Museum, Peter Saunders, agreed with an earlier comment piece decrying the way that museums were losing their way: “…museums have too long felt pressured by funders and politicians to focus on flavour-of-the-month matters such as decolonisation, equality, diversity, restitution and climate change, to the detriment of basic, old-fashioned curatorship. Cataloguing and security are unglamorous activities. Yet might a national scheme to mark all collections with DNA identifiers to deter theft and aid police recovery of stolen artefacts not prove attractive to sponsors? It would surely help prevent the sort of ‘plundering’ suffered by the British Museum.”

The scandal has also led to other issues coming to light. In an August 18 article, Thefts by staff a common problem in UK museums, say expertsThe Guardian reported on claims from a former London Museum employee that the sector was :”institutionally corrupt”, with the theft of items being considered “fair game”.

Even after all this, with Dr Gradel doing everyone the greatest of favours by his hard work and determination – and the museum world exposed as having a very serious institutionalised problem – elements of the media exploited the crisis to attack the trade once more.

Article full of unwarranted smears

In an article that didn’t even bother to consult anyone in the trade, on August 28 The Guardian fired a series of unprofessional and unsubstantiated smears against the market, starting with: “Close observers of the antiquities market tend to be a cynical bunch, having witnessed any number of scams, dubious practices and illicit trading.” 

In what appeared to approach a defamatory line, it went on to ignore all the reasons Dr Gradel had given to explain why he had kept in contact and continued to buy from the BM thief – building a case, keeping him on the hook etc. Instead it questioned his probity: “After all, the only reason the story about the British Museum has come to light is because a Danish antiques dealer, Ittai Gradel, says he became suspicious about a dealer with whom he continued trading for several years.”

It then added to the insult with the following:

“According to Gradel, he alerted George Osborne, the museum’s chairman, after being “fobbed off” by its managers for two years. Apparently he first had doubts about one seller back in 2016, when he recognised an item he’d seen many years before at the British Museum. When he asked the seller, whom he’d been dealing with since 2014, where he came by his objects, he was told that the man’s grandfather had owned a junk shop in York between the wars.

“That’s the kind of cover story that allows both parties involved to continue with business without having to explore any more awkward questions or pay an expert to establish provenance, even though it is a dealer’s legal responsibility to do just that.

“It took Gradel a further four years before he says he realised that he had been inadvertently handling the seller’s stolen goods. And that’s when, he says, the British Museum started dragging its feet.”

Journalist did not even speak to Gradel or trade as he attacked them

This is an extensive and unfair criticism of the whistleblower by a journalist who has not even had the courtesy to speak to him – even at a time when Dr Gradel was conducting a major round of media interviews. Why not?

The article then questions whether a dealer buying from someone from the British Museum would have a duty to conduct due diligence, as though that did not happen. It is the fact that Dr Gradel did conduct such checks that led to his discovery, a fact that The Guardian ignores.

What it does do is talk extensively to the trade’s arch critic, Dr Christos Tsirogiannis, who says: “It’s a huge red flag,” agrees Tsirogiannis, “but on the other hand, how many dealers of antiquities out there are not dealing with unprovenanced objects? I don’t know anyone.”

As usual, in launching this attack on the trade, Dr Tsirogiannis ignores the reality of provenance surrounding ancient objects: that few, if any, have comprehensive documentation dating back to the point of creation or discovery because of the fact that they are so old and that either such paperwork never existed or has not survived.

If the journalist involved, Andrew Anthony, had dug a little deeper, spoken to someone from the Antiquities Dealers’ Association, or at least bothered to check the ADA website, he would have found all the illuminating answers he needed, from the association’s position on responsible collecting, through its mass of independently verifiable data to its analysis of ethics, due diligence, provenance and provenance research.